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Beware the Dreaded Glue Man! Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale

December 17, 2008

A CANTERBURY TALE (1949)
d. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger 

I never thought I would not like a Powell & Pressburger film, but here it is. A Canterbury Tale is not what I expected and perhaps I am missing some vital connection or meaning that would have better informed my viewing. As it is, I found the film slightly charming — the setting of the English countryside is beautiful, the American soldier’s quaint expressions speak of a bygone era of gentlemanliness and patriotism, and the English customs as seen through the American’s eyes become a source of humor.

Unfortunately, the plot and the stakes on which the action revolves are quite thin. While this leads me to suspect that there is something else going on here (something allegorical or, dare I say, religiously experiential?), what is here is a bit daft.

Basically, an American G.I. (Sgt. John Sweet) finds himself stranded in a small town, one train stop outside of Canterbury (his destination), and he immediately becomes embroiled in an incident where a newly arrived English woman from London, Alison (Shiela Sim), gets glue poured onto her hair. He and an English Sergeant track the ne’er-do-well to the local courthouse, but lose sight of him. There they meet the local magistrate, Colpeper (Eric Portman).

Intent on discovering the identity of this “Glue Man”,who has struck several time before, the American agrees to stay and help Alison uncover the perp’s identity and have him arrested before his streak continues. What follows is an investigation by the 2 Sergeants and Alison as they explore all aspects of the small town and slowly reveal their pasts to each other.

Ultimately, the investigation seems rather silly since the answer is glaringly obvious from the beginning, and the stakes seem somewhat low on the totem pole as the enemy doesn’t seem that threatening. I mean, “Glue Man”? Really? I’ll have to chalk that up to “another time, another place”.

What Powell and Pressburger do well is the build up to finally entering Canterbury and revealing the massive cathedral located there after all the talk about it. It’s a majestic moment, though I felt left out as to why such a moment should be singled out as majestic — it seemed melodramatic.

The performances on a whole are what you would expect from a late 40s film, where everyone says what they feel. And the real life G.I. Sgt. John Sweet as the American soldier gives such a level performance that stays straight throughout the film that you will either be charmed by his gosh-darnit delivery or be infuriated by it. Shiela Sim fares better as a woman overcoming the loss of her lover (hence the reason for her return to the small town), as does Eric Portman who gives the magistrate a serene dignity in spite of his dubious actions.

Criterion does its normally excellent job of providing a great clean crisp transfer with improved audio. Otherwise, I felt this to be a minor work compared to The Red Shoes, and not as engaging as The Small Back Room, which came out the same year.

** stars.

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One comment

  1. Each to their own. I did not see the American version which I am thankful. Having read an article in Film Comment on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger films which included A Canterbury Tale, I became eager to see the film. Luckily I rented the British original released on vhs format and found the movie most impressive and entertaining. Yes the glue-man plot was revealed early on, but the dialogue and interaction of the characters was for me unforgetable. I could appreciate the reason for Powell’s making the film to remind the public what it was that England was fighting fascism to protect.



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